Swimming with Angels
Standing on the shores of Playa Tamarindo under a nearly full moon on the island of Culebra, I was looking west towards Fajardo—22 miles away.
Normally if I was up at 4:00 am I would be dancing on the beach with friends with a drink in hand. Not now. I was about to swim across the dark abyss.
My coach Randy Soler from Puerto Rico, who now lives in Boulder, Colorado, had concocted the notion over a year before. He planned all the complicated logistics and we would be swimming for the Scuba Dogs Society who protect and clean coral reefs.
After a rough start and miscommunication with the support boats, I waded into gentle waters at 4:30 am with a nearly full moon hanging low on the horizon. Passing the first island of Cayo Luis Pena the glow from the blue and green lights on Randy’s kayak illuminated the bottom and I could see fish. I wondered if I would encounter the 15-foot hammerhead shark that lives in the bay.
As we moved into deeper waters just before sunrise I started getting the bioluminescence glow following the swoosh of each stroke. I thought of the electrical impulses of light as little angels sending me off and wishing me well on my journey. I relaxed. All the nervous energy of the start faded and I settled into a smooth and easy stroke.
As the sun rose over Culebra, we were three miles into the swim and feeling the sense of joy that accompanies the start of any hero cycle and journey.
There would be dragons to slay later, but now we were all together and moving across the water as a team: Pedro Umpierre was leading the way and Captain Rony on the Reef Sniper party boat with the band Los Bopers playing live music at sunrise. We were rocking.
As we continued to move northwest past the little cayos that start the Caribbean, Pedro pointed out the last two islands on our left. Afterwards we would enter the jet stream to the Atlantic. There was some disagreement with Captain Rony over the course because getting up to the jet stream took us two miles off the most direct route.
Pedro had made the right call. Immediately I recognised the “river within an ocean” as Ernst Hemingway called this particular stretch. Swells and giant rollers were coming in at very predictable intervals pushing me along at three and a half miles per hour—where I normally swim at 2 miles per hour.
I was locked into a steady cadence: two strokes right, two left. Three strokes right looking at Randy, three strokes left looking at Pedro and the Reef Sniper. Five strokes breathe right, five strokes breathe left and repeat. Kicking to the beat with my head down. Swimming from the belly and the core of my body, while my shoulders stayed relaxed.
Judging by my regular feedings every 25 minutes of electrolytes, eggs, gels and lots of water, I had figured we were halfway. I don’t like to track time or constantly measure my progress—just keep swimming until it is over. Fish don’t tell time.
But I’m not a fish, as much as I might like to be. By my calculations with the jet stream I would be done in under three hours. Oh how expectations can be our worst enemy.
At that point I was feeling powerful with each stroke long and strong. For many hours in the daytime I was swimming through a blue orb of light streaming up from the bottom. Like the sun was on the ocean floor instead of the sky. The circle of light seemed like a shield of golden energy encircling our crew.
But in reality, my protection was coming from an eight-foot long black cord on Randy’s kayak that emitted an electro signal to keep away sharks. There haven’t been any reported attacks in the area, but it gave me peace of mind nonetheless.
Except for one moment of terror.
In the distance I saw a small black figure in the depths. It came up towards me frightently fast. I freaked until I realised it was Captain Rony, who is a certified free diver. He recorded some great deep underwater footage of me swimming, but it scared the caca out of me. Everyone on the boats laughed. “Just keep swimming,” I thought.
Passing Cayo Palamino, we turned slightly south and said goodbye to the jet stream and pulsing rollers. The outline of hotels and beaches in Fajardo started to appear.
My coach Randy and I have trained together for several years. He was next to me in a kayak when I completed the first swim across Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans for 25 miles. We have been through the fire and back together.
I could see him getting emotional, wiping away tears behind his sunglasses. I knew exactly what he was feeling, matching my own emotions at that point: an overwhelming joy. Gratitude of being alive and in this space to even try and swim across this ocean. I thought of how far we had come and trained to achieve this dream. All the sacrifices. All those cold mornings getting up at 4:30 am to work out. They seemed so worthwhile now and almost trivial.
I gave him the “Shocka wave” with my thumb and pinky sticking out—a little signal I knew what he was feeling.
I thought of my children, of my wife, Kristina Casa, waiting for me at the finish. She had flown through the night from Colorado to meet me with my wedding ring (so it wouldn’t fall off.) I thought of my whole life and the tribulations and triumphs; of my history and all the events in my life that had brought me to this moment. I had lived a dozen hero cycles and I was about to finish another chapter. The core of my body started shaking with waves of emotion up my spine. My goggles filled with tears.
Randy and I never even said a word to each other—not even afterward. We didn’t need to. That moment was the highlight of the swim. Sometimes all your suffering lets you know your joy. The moment crystallised the very essence of the What? and Why? The swim became greater than the sum of its parts.
After the magic, the shore didn’t get any closer, however. Time seemed to stand still. What I thought was going to be two hours to finish turned into another six hours.
We fought an outgoing tide. I could see a palm tree on the shore that refused to move. For about half an hour a foot-long long fish that looked very similar to Nemo swam on the front right side of Randy’s boat. As the water became more shallow, the ‘spirit fish’ turned under the kayak and swam back to his abode on the coral reef we had crossed a mile back. As I looked to see him swim away, my head ran hard straight into Randy’s kayak.
“What’s happened?” Randy asked concerned.
I didn’t even respond to explain about the fish. “Pay attention and pull yourself together,” I thought. I put my head down and kept swimming.
Randy had warned me about the seaweed and the thick grasses at the boat ramp on the finish. Swimming into it I could barely move my arms through the viscous slimly mass. It smelled so bad I also vomited. I didn’t care very much, however. I had just completed the first ever swim from Culebra to Fajardo of 38 kilometres, almost 24 miles, in 12 hours, 1 minute and 55 seconds.
We slept and rested the entire next day back at our compound at the Zoni Beach Estate in Culebra. We laid by the pool drinking mimosas for breakfast and spent the afternoon at Playa Flamenco, widely considered one the most beautiful beaches in the world.
The team and other friends all came back to Zoni Beach House on Friday and we had a grand celebration. Sometime late after midnight, we all went to Playa Tamarindo – the beach where we had started the swim.
While we swam naked in the ocean under a full moon the angels returned. Bioluminescent fairies glowed all around us as we splashed about. They had come to tell us congratulations. Their spirit saluted us.